Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Strip Them Naked, or The Robber Disrobed




By Anatoly Liberman

This is a story of the naked but not necessarily the dead. Traveling through time, we notice the same grim custom: a defeated enemy or a prisoner of war may be killed or stripped of everything he wears before (and sometimes instead of) being murdered. Reports gloat over the details. Marauders search for good clothes and valuables on the battlefield and care little for the indignity with which they are treating corpses, but it was the ability to humiliate the survivors that gave the greatest joy to the winning party. The shame of being left naked clung to the victim forever, and it was worse than death. With amazing regularity the languages of the world show that the similarity between robber and robe is not fortuitous, that those words are indeed related.

Rob came to English from French after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The cognates of the Old French verb rober (or robber) are, among others, Spanish robar and Italian rubare. They all refer to pillage and plunder and mean the same. But we need not despise our Romance neighbors for their inordinate love of lucre, for they borrowed the offensive word from Germanic-speakers. In English, rob is allied to the archaic native verb reave “despoil.” Reave may have dropped out of the language, but bereave and its past participle bereft are not forgotten. (Bereft is a regular form: compare leave—left, whereas bereaved is an innovation.) If the sound shape of Engl. reave had not changed so drastically since it appeared in the language, it would have sounded approximately like its German cognate rauben “rob,” a living word in that language. Robe has a history similar to that of rob. The original sense of Romance rauba (this is a reconstructed form), a word of Germanic origin, must have been “booty, loot” and by inference “clothes taken as spoil.” Today’s robes are often inconvenient outer garments worn on festive occasions. They may belong to the wearer or rented. Neither the gentlemen of the robe, once they are off duty, nor defrocked priests run around naked. Rob and robe appeared in English in the 13th century. The history of robber and robbery hardly requires additional comments, for the suffixes make the structure of both words clear. Rubble is almost certainly, and rubbish is possibly derived from the root of rob ~ robe.

Many words reached English by the circuitous way from Germanic to Romance and back home, as it were. Speakers of Romance and continental Germanic have lived side by side for millennia. The Conquest made the English aware of French influence on their language. Several streams of Latin words, especially at a later period, increased the role of the Romance element, and it is often forgotten that contacts went in both directions. Compare the titles of two major books on this subject: one is called Germania Romana, the other Romania Germanica. Contacts between robbers and thieves have always been lively. In no other sphere have language barriers played a smaller role. Booty is like robe: it emerged in Germanic, found a new home in France, and was borrowed into English. Pilfer, pillage, and maraud are from Romance. Filch is probably from Romany (Gipsy language). Loot, along with thug, reached English from Hindi. At all times, criminals have been the warmest supporters of globalization and needed no Berlitz schools for understanding one another.

The history of plunder resembles that of rob and booty. Plunder is a Germanic word. In English it appeared only in the 17th century, a much-needed loan from German. In Medieval German, it designated “bedclothes, clothes, household stuff,” and Dutch plunje “clothes; baggage” (“togs,” as one dictionary glosses it) is for all intents and purposes the same word. Consequently, plunder meant “to rob of household effects.” Robbers are not famous for a delicate treatment of appropriated goods. Hence the verb sack “loot, pillage,” from the custom of putting everything taken by force into a sack and making off. (A note, to avoid jumping to conclusions. Ransack has nothing to do with sacking. It goes back to the Old Norse verb rannsaka, in which rann means “house, dwelling,” while the second component saka “attack” is akin to Engl. seek. The sense of the compound was “search for stolen goods.” An English cognate of rann can be detected in saltern “salt works” and barn; in the latter, the words for “barley” and “house” are fused, for the original barn was a place for storing bere “barley.”)

Verbs for “stripping naked,” especially applied to captured enemies and corpses, are plentiful. One of them is Old Icelandic fletta; another, German fleddern. Like so many verbs beginning with fl– and designating unsteady movement (flutter, flicker, and so forth), those two may have referred to the quick, nimble fingers of a professional thief. In this connection the slang verb to finger “steal” and its Southern German counterpart lange Finger haben “to have long fingers” come to mind. Evidently, flatter belongs with this group: it describes “fluttering” around the person whose favors are being sought. The German for “flutter” is flattern, so that we seem to be dealing with variants of the same verb. (The often-suggested connection between flatter and flat is a folk-etymological fantasy. Despite the existence of French flatter with the same meaning, the English verb is probably native. The history of the French word is obscure. A borrowing from Middle English?)

Another way of describing how victims are divested of their clothing is to liken them to sheep and to say that they are shorn, or fleeced. Gothic is the most ancient Germanic language from which we have a significant body of text. Parts of the New Testament, translated by Bishop Wulfila in the 4th century, have come down to us. It may be that Gothic wilwan “rob” is related to wulla “wool.” If so, we have a good parallel to Engl. fleece. The etymon (that is, the ultimate source) of spoil, from which we have despoil and spoils, is Latin spolium “skin stripped from an animal; booty.” Being fleeced is bad. Being skinned or flayed is even worse. Engl. flay is related to fletta and fleddern discussed above.

The etymology of many words meaning “steal,” “rob,” and “spoils” poses difficulties because they tend to rise from the depths of thieves’ cant, whose origin is often impenetrable. But colorful metaphors are transparent. Compare not only verbs like sack and fleece but also lift, pinch, hook, and root. There are dozens of such words. We have traced the history of robber, disrobed the scoundrel, and exposed him to the glaring light of etymological analysis. Perhaps you have heard of a book Sartor Resartus (it inspired the title of this essay). If you have and especially if you have read it, you are great.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Dear A.,
    Thank you. I shall now disrobe and hit the sack (take off my clothes and go to bed).

Comments are closed.